James Otto is a giant of a man. Although he’s built to sack quarterbacks in the NFL, he’s blessed with a bourbon-and-molasses voice that has served him well in his chosen profession: country music troubadour. Otto’s breakout year was 2008, when he was nominated for “New Artist of the Year” at the Country Music Association (CMA) Awards. He also received two GRAMMY nominations that year for "Best Male Country Vocal Performance" and as a songwriter in the "Best Country Song Category." He followed up that initial success last year by winning both a CMA award and an Academy of Country Music award for “Song of the Year.”
Now James Otto is putting his talent and burgeoning fame to good use by joining NRDC’s growing Music Saves Mountains initiative, aimed at spreading the word and putting an end to mountaintop removal coal mining.
Across the Appalachians, companies are blowing entire mountaintops to smithereens to get at the thin coal seams below. The communities of the region are paying the cost in their health, their culture and their natural heritage. Big coal companies should not be allowed to turn our nations' oldest mountains into molehills, and NRDC is working with local allies -- in addition to country music stars -- to raise public awareness that will help halt this damaging practice.
“I certainly understand that coal mining is important to the Appalachian region and that some people do it to make a living," says Otto. "But I also think that we can all live without this particular form of mining because people in Appalachia have a right to live without all the harm it causes to their homes and their family's health."
Although his roots are in the Pacific Northwest, Otto got hooked on country music after moving as a teen from Washington to the backwoods of Alabama as a teenager. As it happened, living in Sand Mountain, Alabama is what made Otto fall in love with the Appalachians. His appreciation for the hills only increased after he settled in Nashville, Tennessee to begin his music career.
He first learned about mountaintop removal last November, when NRDC presented the issue to a group of Nashville-based musicians and invited them to help keep the 'country' in country music by stopping the destruction of the Appalachian Mountains. Already some 500 mountaintops have been lost, over a million acres of once lush forests have been converted to barren moonscapes, and nearly 2,000 streams throughout the region have been irrecovably polluted or obliterated by the dumping of mining waste.
Otto's outrage over mountaintop removal is clear.
"The systematic destruction of the Appalachian mountains for coal mining needs to stop immediately," he says. "There are many other ways to mine coal without blasting away the scenic mountaintops that can never be replaced. It is completely unnecessary and leaves a permanent scar on the landscape and in the communities surrounding these sites."
Otto adds: "We need to band together to lend our voices to the mountains that helped give a voice to country music."
As more and more singers, songwriters and musicians take up the cause, NRDC hopes that more Americans will wake up to the leveling of Appalachia and help us demand that Congress pass legislation that ends this rogue mining once and for all.